Rightists seek dominance in Vienna city poll as government struggles


Austria’s Freedom Party wants to end social democratic rule in the capital in Sunday’s elections. At the same time, the right-wingers already have set their sights on higher aims.

At a recent far-right election rally in Vienna, local residents banged pots and pans in protest, but failed to stop the speech of Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

The populist is running for mayor in Sunday’s city council polls in the capital. Although warnings against voting for Strache have dominated the elections campaigns of all his rivals, they, too, are unlikely to halt his run of success.

In the most recent polls, the Social Democratic Party (SPOe) of mayor Michael Haeupl barely leads with 37 per cent, only 2 percentage points ahead of the Freedom Party (FPOe).

Strache’s anti-immigration stance has fallen on fertile ground this year. Refugee numbers soared to 200,000 people who transited Austria during September, while 10,000 stayed to seek refugee protection that month.

“Politics has completely failed in this regard,” Strache said at the rally, pointing to the national government coalition of social democrats and the conservatives of the People’s Party (OeVP).

Many commentators share this view to some extent, and they believe that the Vienna city election has implications for the Austrian government.

The cabinet struggled this year to secure enough accommodation for asylum seekers and had to resort to tents for a while.

“The images of the tents were the final proof that the government was unable to get a grip on the asylum question. It became apparent that it couldn’t cope,” political scientist Kathrin Stainer-Haemmerle told dpa.

When the tents went up in mid-May, the FPOe overtook the coalition parties in national polls and has stayed in the lead since then. Nearly a third of voters would currently cast their ballots for the far-right, according to the latest survey.

Since May, the FPOe secured big gains in three regional elections, most recently in Upper Austria province last month.

“The success is not based on their own performance, but on the non-performance of the government parties,” Stainer-Haemmerle said at the Carinthia University of Applied Sciences in Klagenfurt.

The government has been sending unclear signals on migration.

Social democratic Chancellor Werner Faymann has criticized the harsh policies in neighbouring Hungary, while conservative ministers pushed for stricter border controls that were not implemented because police could not hold back the masses of migrants.

The migration issue has drowned out other issues in Vienna, such as rising real estate prices or the city’s large bureaucracy.

Mayor Haeupl, a heavyweight in the SPOe, has supported Faymann’s policy of welcoming refugees, while pushing his own agenda of building more public housing and creating jobs in Vienna.

Austria is no longer the EU’s top performer when it comes to employment, and the economy grew only 0.3 per cent in the second quarter, slightly below the eurozone average.

Even if Strache failed to secure the mayoral post in Vienna, he already has his sights set for the next parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for 2018.

“If we take Vienna, it will have consequences for Faymann,” Strache said.